Jemilea Wisdom-Baako is compassion personified. Moving almost in silence she is relentless at carving out avenues for people to thrive. Poet, Mother, Wife and Director of Writerz‘N’Scribez, a creative non-profit that provides and facilitates outreach projects for underserved communities, she is very accomplished and equally unassuming. Aware that these external factors are only ever half of the story, I precipitate to discover her takes on strength.
A strong woman is a woman who has learnt the fullness of herself and is comfortable expressing that not just in private, but wherever she goes. I think it is a depth of understanding and connecting with who you truly are outside of other people’s expectations and their limitations that they put on you based on your roles, your responsibilities, your age, your personhood, whatever it is. I think to be strong is to be able to fight against all of those barriers and still be your true, authentic self.
No one enters wisdom fully formed and Jemilea is no different. She speaks of her paternal grandmother — a woman who carried herself with much dignity matched with a hard exterior that warned mess with me at your own risk. This veneer of power was punctuated by eyes that betrayed a heaviness of spirit borne out of overcoming difficulty. Whilst Jemilea at first considered that ability to keep people at bay and to overcome as the embodiment of strength, the passing years made her question whether she was right. If you can’t let people see your tenderness and your expressions of affection are tempered with caution as a result of life’s experiences, is that really strength or are you living in survival mode? Intentionally working through these questions led her to a healthier concept of strength and personhood. We explore the women who contributed to this growth journey, women who come to mind as we speak of ‘strong woman’.
My auntie. It’s how she moves through life and her ability to impact others. She has such a generosity of spirit and she gives but she never runs out. A key measure of her strength is in her knowing where to replenish and how to replenish so that she can be as giving. Which tells me that knowing you need to rest is also a facet of strength.
And my mother, who instilled in me the confidence that I have the right to show up wherever I want and be comfortable regardless of what other people think of me being there. She didn’t let any obstacle stop her from pursuing her dreams and she taught me not to shrink myself for anyone. So even now when I am in very white spaces with my husband, he is always surprised at how confidently I move.
I have always wondered how her small idea to run workshops for young people in the community ballooned into an organisation that is creating work whilst servicing local councils, schools, businesses, etc. and now it makes more sense. I met Jemilea at the beginning of her business journey, when she was accosting people at poetry nights to ask if they wanted to be part of a project she was trying to put together. It has been almost a decade since. Yet, only in this conversation, did I learn that the genesis of the initiative was a desire for a communicative breakthrough with young men embroiled in the criminal justice system, for whom it was her job to prepare pre-sentencing reports.
They just wouldn’t talk to me. I was linked to the courts and to authority, so they chose not to help themselves. I knew the police used to watch their rap videos on Channel U to get information and that gave me an idea. I used to ghostwrite bars for playground rap battles in school so I figured I’d try that. For my next session, I put on an instrumental, displayed sticky notes with different themes on the table and asked the boy to write. He looked baffled but in the end he wrote and we exchanged bars. He found freedom to express himself and I had a lot of things to put in my report. Full steam excited, I told my manager and pitched a program that would allow us serve the young men and do our jobs better. He said ‘we don’t have time, money or capacity for your young people dreams, so just do your job’. I did but I also decided I would make this happen and so I started looking for youth centres, asking poets to come for a chat…
The rest is history as the saying goes. What stands out, is the zeal to go beyond the ‘No’, and the embodiment of that generosity of spirit which Jemilea noticed and admires in her aunt. I also can’t but notice the clarity of purpose and the confidence it must have taken to forge ahead with nothing but a dream. Exploring this confidence and whether it was always there, Jemilea recalls being a teenager with a body that refused to develop at the rate of her classmates. For a long time, she felt the weight of self-consciousness because in her words “I was flat everywhere, like a rectangle”. In hindsight, the amount of time she invested in researching how to grow boobs and doing chest exercises that did nothing to inflate her chest is funny but at the time, it was no laughing matter. She felt shame at having to get undressed for P.E and couldn’t even stuff her chest to fit in since her mother refused to buy bras until there was something to put in them. Fortunately, her dad eventually came to the rescue and decided to take Jemilea bra shopping. She remembers him holding items up and asking, ‘what's a t-shirt bra’, both of them equally ignorant but happy. When breasts and curves showed up, seemingly overnight, confidence was not in tow. In that context, I ask in what moment Jemilea stepped into her womanhood — into herself.
I had a season of rebellion. I had been very sheltered with restrictions on when to be home, what to wear, etc and in that season, I decided my life belonged to me and not my parents so I was going to have little rebellions to reclaim myself. I lied and said I had joined the netball club. when I got comfortable, the club started to do competitions. This gave me a few extra hours after school to gallivant and do teenage stuff. By the time I was to go to university, I recognised an opportunity to recreate myself and snap out of an excruciatingly shy persona. My mother tried to bribe me to stay in London. She said she’d buy me a car, they’ll convert the loft…I chose freedom. Being in a new place with complete strangers, I who never spoke, started knocking on random doors to introduce myself. I organised a party in the first week. By forcing myself to do things I never would have done before, I entered a process of learning and unlearning which allowed me to choose who I wanted to be.
The word intention comes to mind again, especially as many people move through life acting as though they have no choice in who they become. Given that a major part of these explorations on women and strength is about unlearning, Jemilea’s mention of the practice forms a perfect segue into the question; in what ways did the women in your life and society condition your thinking and behaviour around what a woman is, which you have had to unlearn to be who you are?
One of the main things I took on, was to not cause trouble and specifically to not cause trouble for men. To smile and be courteous, even in the midst of anger or danger; as if it was more necessary for him to be okay, than me. And so what I learned to do was be a peacemaker and to avoid conflict and to please because that was acceptable. I think it also meant that I lost my ability to speak up for myself or to put myself first. Having a daughter challenged me to start unlearning things quickly because I was very aware of what I didn’t want her to become. I didn’t want to play a part in creating an environment where she would emulate any of these dangerous attitudes from me.
We sit in the silence of this disclosure. Affected by its magnitude but also our familiarity with it. And what does that say about the behaviours well meaning people pass down to us? Faith is a place from where Jemilea unapologetically draws strength in day to day life, but the church also comes up in this conversation on conditioning. ‘I had to unlearn the pressure to look the part’ she says, elaborating about how a culture that restricts what you can wear down to the minutiae of no short sleeves, no trousers, no jewellery, can become an identity which ultimately equates to allowing other people to dictate how you present and by extension, how you explore your sexuality. If you are not allowed to dress in a way that could cause a man to lose control, ignoring the non-existent boundaries of such an instruction, then you take on the responsibility of saving men from their lust. It’s disturbing to admit that I too have carried that responsibility, quietly, subconsciously but heavy and real as a weight around a neck. So when Jemilea mentions that when she found herself in dangerous situations, instead of fighting back, she found herself stuck in a maze of questions, wondering whether she was to blame, I understand. Unfortunately, I’ve had too many conversations revealing that this isn’t an anomaly. Pondering on how to move on from here, Jemilea shares this:
I had to learn to stop taking responsibility for everybody’s actions and importantly, to stop blaming myself for perpetrators.
A huge but necessary undertaking, the mere realisation of this solution is power the fruits of which must be cultivated. Since change and personal growth happens for different reasons, I ask, what drives you?
We don’t get to choose the family we are born into, but I have chosen the family I have now. I want to show my children how to win and how to come back from failure which means I have to be emotionally available to myself first. This drives me to undergo painful experiences like rehashing sexual abuse in therapy and uncovering what that did to my understanding of my body and how I interpret touch and intimacy. I want to be open for them instead of having a situation where they can’t get to the heart of who I am because I am too scared to find out who that is.
This level of self-awareness is endearing. It’s a strength built on a foundation of vulnerability. I am interested in how sisterhood plays into that but before we can broach the present, we unravel a past in which Jemilea felt a disconnect from women. In that mix was a strained relationship with a mother who loved her but didn’t know how to let her be herself, a best friend betrayal at 15 and a biological sister who moved out just when Jemilea thought she was getting old enough to live the Hollywood fairytale of sisters who were close confidants, whose clothes you borrowed all the time. She felt abandoned. The cumulative effect was a lack of trust in women. She recalls being lonely until she became more comfortable with herself, at which point she was more open to the reality that there were women who were able to hold space for her to exist in the fullness of herself.
That experience was a miracle for me. To be broken and in a space of women who will hug you and put themselves into your sharpness as though saying I can take it if you make me bleed, I see your brokenness and I am able to gather you here. It’s a huge sense of relief. A lot of relationships or roles I hold as mother, wife, biological sister, come with instilled rules of what I can’t say. I can’t truly tell my mother what I think because there are ways it will come back to bite me or as with any married couple I have to be careful how I say something because I have to live with my husband afterwards. So to have a space where you can just vent when you need to, where there is also accountability and the giving and taking is reciprocal, that’s everything. True sisterhood is I’m here for you and I know that you will be there for me because you have proven that.
Who are the women who widened the sphere of possibility for who you get to be?
There’s a friend, Katrena who has given me the space to be completely vulnerable. I think I have naturally become a place for people to take refuge, so that I then find it hard to be vulnerable in those relationships because that is not the set narrative. But Katrena has not required strength of me. Instead, she allows me to dismantle and then nurtures me back to health. By giving me that space, she’s helped me to find myself in a scary way that I would rather avoid, but is necessary.
The second person is the person conducting this interview, in the way she has created room for me to understand that I have more potential than I maybe see in myself. It’s like in gymnastics, when they’re in training quite young, they stretch, then a coach comes and pushes their leg farther than they think it should be able to go. It makes me wince and looks uncomfortable. I’ll say she does that in her coaching style, in the way that she doesn’t give you the opportunity to say no. She’s already on your leg.But it’s a stretching that creates flexibility and an ability to perform in ways that wouldn’t have been possible prior to that moment. This also expands my confidence.
It’s a little strange to be spoken about in third person but I am honoured. Jemilea was a participant in the first cohort of my poetry development program and discovering the range of her work then and since has been a blessing. And it’s refreshing to know that she affords herself the grace to learn, to crumble and the kindness of letting people in. It’s not lost on me how much of her growth in various facets of life have been borne out of going against the grain and stepping out of her comfort zone. In that context I ask about whether she ever suffers from imposter syndrome? We talk about how on the day she decided to launch her business, she recieved a positive response from a well paying job she had been waiting on for some time. When the job offer came in, it threw her into confusion but she had also had time to think about what next. She knew her mother who had stayed in the same job as a social worker for 25 years would not understand quitting a job, turning down an offer and starting some social enterprise but she was convinced it was the right thing and it helped that her father supported her vision, so she jumped. Clarity of vision doesn’t equate to knowledge or network so imposter syndrome was part and parcel of the early days when she felt clueless a lot.
I struggled to see myself as a business owner but I knew I did well in community so I applied for a place on the school of social entrepreneurs program. They made us jump through hoops. There were about three rounds of the application process but when I got in and was surrounded by people doing similar things but for longer with more successes, I started to think maybe I do have something. I decided to speak positively about everything I did and not let my insecurities override what we had accomplished. Becoming confident in the work and its ability to change lives became easier because I saw it happen which meant I could speak very eloquently about it and fundraise. My imposter syndrome still shows up sometimes when I am in spaces with very high calibre people and I remember that I don't even have an office. It's just me, my laptop in the front room and the baby on the floor. But then I look at what we have done, that speaks for itself. So I just focus on that.
What armour do you wear to go out in the world?
Whatever wig I’m wearing on that particular day. My hair started falling out when I was 15. And it was a really tough navigating those years and then womanhood and not having hair, at a time when wigs were not in fashion or well designed. I really struggled with feeling beautiful. I can’t hide or cover the hair loss now. It still feels exposing. Wigs give me a sense of confidence, but also a sense of privacy, so I can go out into the world without strangers all up in my business asking me questions about things that they don't need to ask me.
What gives you joy?
Lamb chops. Dancing in the kitchen, singing at the top of my lungs and the feel of freshly washed hair. Family. My children are hilarious. I have a grandma with severe dementia. When she tries to crack jokes, even though I don't get it, it gives me joy because it means she still in there. What also gives me joy is watching my enemies be defeated.
I don't know whether Jemilea is joking or serious with this last answer but we are laughing too much for me to ask and I think I like it. Thinking through the whole discussion I'm struck by Jemilea’s bravery not just in dreaming and making it happen but the fact of always being prepared to work on herself whether in business, poetry, or life, not running away from hard or painful processes and her lived desire to make space for others to feel whole — strength.
Given what has come before, it is therefore not surprising that when I ask ‘what do you want your legacy to be’, she says:
I want my legacy to be that I enabled people to find value in themselves. That I showed them what they couldn’t see until they saw it themselves.
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